Last Friday, after 24-odd hours of media chatter about Ohio Sen. Rob Portman’s conversion to the cause of gay marriage, I ran into the one person who wasn’t surprised. Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, stopped by a happy hour that Rick Santorum’s PAC was hosting for activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference. He was probably tired of talking about it, I figured, but why not ask? What did he think of Portman?
“Portman's going to have a primary in 2016,” said Brown. Advocates of traditional marriage had never really trusted Portman anyway. “He was never out in front on marriage.” And he wasn’t representative of any Republican shift, as much as the media wanted to portray it as such.
The traditional marriage cause has received no good news since then. No other notable Republicans have flipped, but the Republican National Committee issued a report on party renewal, and it didn’t mention marriage. A Washington Post/ABC poll found the highest-ever overall support for gay marriage, 58 percent. For the first time ever, young Republicans (under 49) were solidly in favor of gay marriage.
Overall, though, 59 percent of Republicans still opposed it. Republicans over 65, the party’s most reliable voters, opposed gay marriage by a 68-25 margin. It’s relatively easy for Rob Portman, three-odd years away from a primary, to flip on gay marriage. It’s harder to calculate the costs for Republicans if they “evolve” on gay marriage now, or if activists think they see them evolving.
“I don’t think the Republican Party will move away from traditional marriage,” said Brown over the phone on Friday. (He’s doing plenty of media before NOM marches on the Supreme Court next week, the day of the Prop. 8 hearing.) “There’s no way a political party can abandon 80 percent of its electorate and survive. It just doesn’t work that way. The idea that young people are the group we have to make this change for, while we abandon the black community’s support for marriage, and the Hispanic community’s support—all of this is just fantasy so that Rockefeller Republicans, country club Republicans can dictate the future.”
Brown has a point. Republicans and conservative supporters of same-sex marriage have media savvy and a dynamite hook: They’re changing a stodgy party that can’t win national elections. What they don’t have is institutional support inside the GOP. Ken Mehlman, the former RNC chairman who denied he was gay for years, can get more than 100 signatures on a brief supporting same-sex marriage rights. He can’t get sitting Republicans, or active Republicans in the party’s stronghold states, to sign it.
“Committed Christians make up a huge voting bloc within the GOP,” said A.J. Spiker, the 32-year-old chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. The “Ken Mehlman sliver of the party,” he said, didn’t play in Iowa. “We can't win elections without committed Christians staying engaged. I suppose the argument is that young people won’t vote Republican unless the party changes on marriage, but I don't hear young people advocating for gay marriage. I was the co-chair of Ron Paul's Iowa campaign, a liberty-minded group, and I don't hear it.”
For the “Ken Mehlman sliver,” Iowa’s caucuses are part of the problem. Every four years, the media descends on a nonbinding activist contest and uses it to assign momentum to candidates. Every four years, candidates are asked to commit themselves to all manner of social conservative tests if they want to compete in Iowa. In 2011, NOM got the leading Republicans to sign a four-part pledge committing them, among other things, to the passage of a Federal Marriage Amendment. The Urbandale, Iowa-based FAMiLY Leader crafted its own pledge. Rick Santorum, who won the caucuses and briefly became the social conservatives’ paladin, signed both pledges.
“Core values aren't talking points to be negotiated away,” said Bob Vander Plaats, president of the FAMiLY Leader. “Core values are what motivate us. In the last two cycles, 2008 and 2012, we've nominated the most moderate candidates in McCain and Romney. We got crushed.” But in 2012, voters also kept a Democratic majority in the state Senate and they retained a judge who’d voted to legalize gay marriage in the state. Was that a defeat for the marriage cause?
No. According to Vander Plaats, that was an early warning sign of what happens when the party declares a “truce” on social issues. “You had a top of the ticket candidate in Mitt Romney who was on both sides of every issue including marriage,” said Vander Plaats. “He had a disastrous ripple effect.”
You can’t even find a national Republican who’d defend the Romney campaign. But their job is tricky: They want social conservatives to stay quiet but motivated. At his weekly briefing on Thursday, Speaker of the House John Boehner interrupted a reporter who started to ask whether the party’s ongoing legal action for the Defense of Marriage Act contradicted their tone shift. It was merely necessary. “In our system of government, the administration doesn’t decide what’s constitutional,” said Boehner. “The Supreme Court does.” The party would be tolerant without moving sharply left on marriage.
“I am a social conservative,” said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus in a Friday talk with reporters at National Review’s D.C. offices. “Yes, we are still a pro-life party. Yes, we still defend our platform on marriage.” But backing off marriage, as an issue, didn’t amount to an endorsement of the Democrats’ position. “Listen to Gov. Mike Huckabee. Listen to the way Mike Huckabee talks about these issues, because I don’t know anyone who talks about them any better while staying true to principle and exhibiting the decency and tone in the way he talks about it. It would be a model for a lot of people in the party. That would be my suggestion.”
Huckabee’s actually weighed in on this stuff. In a message on his website this week, he snarked at Hillary Clinton and Rob Portman for declaring their bold new marriage views and getting praised by the media. “Before you make up your mind, ask yourself: Is it a decision you can reconcile with an objective standard of morality, like the Bible? Or are you just bending with the prevailing winds?”
That’s what Iowa Rep. Steve King wants to know. Social conservatives point to his 2012 re-election win as proof that they can win where squishes can’t. (Romney won King’s district, but the congressman did run ahead of the ticket.) He’s strongly considering a 2014 run for Senate. He’s convinced that the “evolvers” are wrong.
“Immigration, marriage—what’s next, life? The abortion issue?” he asked. “If the Republican Party decides that we can’t take positions that are clear on principle—immigration, rule of law, marriage is between a man and a woman—if we decide that we can’t maintain those positions because some people disagree, this party will fracture.* It sets up the scene by which history eventually produces a party that does reflect the values of its society. I’m thinking about the formation of the Republican Party in the first place, as an abolitionist party. It was a glorious time, to watch Republicans stand up and say: We reject slavery. And if I were advocating for the things these ‘leaders’ are, I’d go back and read up on the Whigs, and I’d reflect.”
*Correction, March 26, 2013: This article originally misquoted Rep. Steve King. He referred to Republican positions saying, "marriage is between a man and a woman," not "marriage is between the rule of law."
Read more from Slate’s coverage of gay marriage.